Sitting between his parents on his family’s living room sofa in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Sunny Bhatia watched wide-eyed as a lavish Bollywood drama played on his family’s television. Glued to his seat until the screen went dark and the credits rolled, 12-year-old Bhatia was mesmerized.
“I saw the words ‘directed by’ and I vividly remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t know what this guy did, but whatever he does I want to do it for the rest of my life,’” said Bhatia, who graduated from the University of Miami with a Master of Fine Arts.
Almost two decades later, Bhatia is releasing his first independently directed thesis film, “Arjun.” Bhatia finished his master’s degree in motion pictures in 2018 but stayed at UM to finish his thesis film.
The 48-minute film takes place in the near future, amid a deadly war between India and Pakistan. It tells the story of an Indian soldier and a young Pakistani girl as they make their way through a war-torn world.
“Arjun” will be screened May 12 at 11 a.m. during the annual Canes Film Festival, hosted at the Cosford Cinema. The festival will showcase 19 films produced by graduate students from the 2020 and 2021 graduating cohorts of UM’s MFA program.
Bhatia first pitched his idea for “Arjun” to his classmates during his first year at UM. Among the audience was scriptwriter Aaron Gordon.
Gordon said he was particularly drawn to Bhatia’s passion for action films and his vision as a director.
“People live in their dreams,” Gordon said. “But one thing that Sunny has always done is prepare for the career that he wants. I personally believe that he’s one of the best directors that came to our program.”
Bhatia recruited Gordon to write the script for “Arjun” in 2018, a process that took about three months.
While Gordon put his vision to paper, Bhatia managed to cast his dream actor, prominent Bollywood actor and star of “Chennai Express,” Nikitin Dheer, as the film’s lead. Bhatia says he envisioned Dheer playing the role since he first settled on “Arjun” as his next major project.
In the spring of 2019, Bhatia, Gordon and their crew spent 10 days in India shooting “Arjun.”
“It was really cool to see him in his element,” said Gordon about Bhatia. “Here he is speaking Hindi with the actors and crew, then speaking English to the American delegation of the crew.”
“Arjun” was in post production when the coronavirus brought everything to a standstill. Bhatia and his crew overcame numerous obstacles—not having access to studios on campus, collaborating remotely and securing funding for the film—to execute their vision for “Arjun.”
“He is able to focus on every single detail all the way through,” Gordon said. “There is nothing that this man can’t do to get everything in this movie exactly how he wants it.”
Bhatia graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in journalism on a pre-med track. The multi-talented filmmaker also has a certification from Georgetown University in nuclear medicine.
Growing up, Bhatia says his parents wanted him to pursue a secure and “legitimate” career like medicine, but he always felt that he was born to pursue film. Shortly after graduating from Rutgers, Bhatia sat down with his father to tell him that he wanted to go to film school and pursue his dream of being a director. Bhatia’s father, who owns a liquor store in Prince George’s County, did not speak to him for two weeks following their conversation.
After the extended silent treatment, however, Bhatia’s father relented and confided in his son that he had also wanted to be a filmmaker.
“I don’t know how his unachieved dream transferred over to me; we never spoke about it,” Bhatia said. “And now he sends me stories.”
Now, with the support of his family and peers, Bhatia affirms that he is on a mission to work his way up in the film industry.
“I want to have the weight of all five film studios on my shoulders,” Bhatia said. “That’s what I want, nothing less.”
The annual Canes Film Festival will also feature screenings of the following graduate films on May 2 between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m: “Arjun,” “Seedscape,” “Self,” “Rerouting,” “The Encounter,” “LIFE GOES ON,” “Magic Banana,” “Snowfall,” “The Watchers,” “Glove,” “Thumbs Up,” “Bath Time,” “Sniff ‘em,” “Las Llaves, el Gato y un Pez Negro,” “i do,” “Jena Manning – Sour Cherries On My Mind,” “Cut,” “Killing Time” and “Sam.”